Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) puts viewers on a greased slide to doom. Baby-faced lounge piano player Al (Tom Neal) is a born loser, a schmuck who exists in a near-perpetual sulk. When he finally scrapes together enough gumption to hitchhike out west to reunite with his Hollywood-bound girlfriend, both he and the audience can sense that this flicker of life will soon be extinguished. He’s convinced fate has it in for him, so he might as well help it along with a bad decision or two.
Al barely does anything; misfortune (i.e., plot) just unfolds near him while he gawks at it, and then–because he’s sure no one will believe he’s this limply incapable of real action, he winds up sticking himself with all the blame. He doesn’t have the courage to deal with his problems, and he doesn’t have the ingenuity to avoid them. In a medical drama, he would be sitting at home, bathed in a cold sweat and recognizing that some tumor inside him is growing and growing.
Here, the tumor is Vera, played by the appropriately named Ann Savage. Vera breathes viciousness; she even brushes her hair with a hateful fury. She’s sick, and surely as doomed as Al, but vitality crackles through her, galvanizing her with pure venom. You instinctively feel that she must smell like overworked machinery, that she must run a few degrees hotter than normal. She moves in small, manic twitches, like her loathing for the world is so intense it’s resulting in muscle spasms, some desire to beat even the air around her into submission. She is the natural predator for a guy like Al, and she latches onto him at once. She knows he’s traveling under a fake name, and she knows he left a body behind him in the desert. She certainly knows that means she can squeeze him for every last drop.
There are a thousand things Al could do to escape his predicament, but he does none of them. He mopes, and Vera grasps, and each of them is a hell the other one is stuck in. There’s no denying that the movie gets some much needed (poisonous) air when Vera shows up halfway through, and Savage’s, well, savagery that makes it all memorable, but the miserable, archetypal tension between the perpetual schemer and the perpetual fall guy is what makes Detour a dark, weird masterpiece. This is primal noir, noir so grim that it skips the sex and just leans into death instead.
Everyone’s going to die, as Vera tells Al. It’s just a matter of when. And that’s the film’s thesis: doom is the one sure thing.
Detour is in the public domain and is streaming on Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Tubi, and The Criterion Channel, among others.